When it comes to planning independent travel to Japan, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
That's why starting with a clear idea of what you want to get out of your travels, and then shaping those ideas into a well-designed travel plan, according to a few simple steps, is crucial if you want to consistently enjoy exceptional travel, trip after trip.
There are a couple of well-known phrases I think apply to travel planning: American writer Benjamin Franklin's "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail", and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's "He who fails to plan is planning to fail".
When it comes to travel planning, they do kind of have a point.
When you start out, there can be dozens of questions that need answering when trip planning...
...and so on, and so on.
In this post I’ll share with you the 5 stages of travel and how to get the most out of each of them by planning ahead. Along the way, I'll share how I approach each of them, and how you can create your own ‘travel planning formula’ to make your trip planning easier and your travel more fulfilling.
How To Plan Trips To Japan
by Rob Dyer
Figuring Out What You Really Want
Japan is a wonderful country with countless attractions, but it can be difficult to plan the perfect trip. In order to create your ideal itinerary, you need to filter through all those ideas you've been bookmarking for months, if not years, on end.
Sometimes it can be hard to precisely figure out what you really want to do, and if you're planning the trip solo, it can be even more challenging.
And you need a way of doing it that doesn't amount to 6 months staring relentlessly at your laptop and phone screens.
So, since I've been travelling in Japan for decades, I thought it might be helpful if I shared with you how I plan my trips to Japan.
Now, with technology and apps providing instant access to information, it isn't essential to plan travel in such detail as we once did. But some people, my wife and I included, still enjoy doing this.
If you're the methodical type, someone who doesn't mind delving into the detail, then you'll probably already be doing some or all of what I am.
On the other hand, maybe you're someone who doesn't enjoy spending months on research, and would appreciate just a handful of key things to think about and steps to take.
Or maybe you're somewhere in between?
Wherever you are in that range, I thought it might be helpful if I shared with you my approach so that you might get some new or extra insights into my travel planning. And that maybe you can use and apply some of this in your own trip planning.
Need help planning your Japan trip?
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The 5 Key Stages of Travel
To consistently experience exceptional and stress-free travel, my approach to travel is to consciously recognise that there are several distinct stages to travel.
And that being aware of each step up front helps me position my mindset and complete the tasks required at each stage.
The 5 key stages of travel are...
Stages 1 and 2 are the most time-consuming.
Some people really enjoy stages 1 and 2. Others find them a chore. A potentially never ending series of problems to solve, that just get in the way of the fun bit of actually travelling.
Stage 3 is largely a necessity. It's the one where you turn your ideas into concrete plans.
Stage 4 is the fun part.
And stage 5 is the most overlooked, but, as we'll see, one of the most important.
Let's take a closer look at what each of these 5 stages are, and see how you can apply them when planning your next trip into The Real Japan.
Stage 1: Dreaming
夢想する (Musou suru)
Sometimes dreams are just that, they're dreams.
To turn them into reality, you need to have some kind of plan, with tangible steps. Only then will your travel dreams become real, unforgettable experiences and memories.
Dreaming is the best part of travel planning.
You want to get away. You're motivated. You start searching for things like destinations, seasons, duration, and experiences.
If you're anything like me, it's also the most visual stage.
Meaning you'll be watching videos, reading travel blogs, swiping through hundreds and hundreds of amazing-looking photos of places that you can't wait to visit, and food you just have to eat.
I find watching films set in Japan and documentaries (about any aspect of the country, not just travel), can be an abundant source of inspiration at this starting phase.
At some moment during the Dreaming stage, you'll reach a tipping point and realise that it's time to start making a travel plan. Which takes us onto Stage 2.
I think of this as the 'Vision' stage.
My Destinations Travel Hub has plenty of ideas on places to go.
Stage 2: Planning
計画する (Keikaku suru)
After the sheer joy of the Dreaming stage, honestly, the Planning stage can sometimes feel like a bit of a slog.
You want to do it, but you don't want to do all of it at once. You turn to the most trusted resources you know, to hopefully make the process a bit more manageable and, frankly, more enjoyable than it can often be.
The thing about the Planning stage is that it is full of yet-to-be-answered questions: how? when? where? what? how much? Which is part of the reason that Planning is usually the longest stage by some margin.
The Goal of The Planning Stage
The goal at the Planning stage is to research your options, manage the overwhelm of possibilities and begin organising. Narrowing down your options.
This will be an iterative process and it will take time. Do not attempt to rush this stage. If you do, you'll only be doing yourself and your potential future memories a disservice.
Here, the general browsing of the Dreaming stage turns into something altogether more targeted. Online, you'll start looking more closely at websites dedicated to the specific kind of travel in Japan you are most interested in.
Specifically, YouTube and personal travel blogs can be a mine of information about possible destinations and things to do.
Your search terms will include words like flights, hotels, trips, activities, restaurants, experiences, tours, etc. You'll probably be diving deeper into your favourite social media for ideas and inspiration.
Offline, maybe you'll buy a couple of Japan travel guides, or borrow them from a library.
Don't expect to complete this stage quickly. At least, not if you're doing your planning correctly. And don't worry if your energy feels sapped along the way. After the highs of the Dreaming stage, that is to be expected.
I think of this as the 'Consideration' stage.
Stages 1 and 2 are the most time consuming. If you want to speed that stuff up, with the aim of getting to the Experiencing stage quicker, why not take a look at my travel planning services.
If you want more on what websites and resources I use when I'm planning, check out my Planning Travel Hub.
RELATED: 38 Japan Travel Sites and Resources Every Traveller Should Know
Stage 3: Booking
予約する (Yoyaku suru)
This is the phase where those dreams you started with all those months ago begin to become reality.
After what can sometimes feel like the protracted hard work of Planning, the Booking stage is the shortest of our 5 stages.
It's the point at which research turns to action. Now you're getting closer to your actual journey, and your spirits are given a boost once again.
A lot of progress is made at this stage.
Working from the various shortlists you made during the Planning stage, you'll now be reviewing, choosing and deciding on which options to actually book.
From flights, to accommodation, to experiences, right through to the practical stuff, including things like Japan Rail Passes, WiFi rental, SIM cards and so on.
Again, to help speed up the lengthy 'vetting process' at this stage for you, I suggest bookmarking my Recommended Japan Travel Resource page, where I've done the groundwork on all the above options for you.
Your time online is focused on the booking platforms, be they direct with the suppliers (such as airlines, hotels, train companies, resorts, restaurants, etc.) or through aggregators (like Skyscanner, Booking.com, Klook, Voyagin, byFood, etc.).
This is the 'Let's book it!' stage.
SEE ALSO: Japan Rail Pass Ultimate Guide
Stage 4: Experiencing
体験する (Taiken suru)
This is the big one! The one all our hard-earned efforts to date have been working towards. Your dream trip to The Real Japan really starts here.
This fourth stage is itself a journey. It starts with the days directly prior to travelling when you finally get to pack those cases. Then you're on your way to and arriving at your destination.
Once you've arrived your adventure begins. You can't wait to explore everything you have planned and, hopefully you've allowed spare time for serendipity to introduce you to places and encounters no amount of pre-planning would have unearthed.
Here's where you get to make the best of the time you have available.
Now you can dip back into your final shortlist of bookmarks and saved online resources and efficiently look for those spur-of-the-moment things to do that are near you today, tonight and tomorrow.
You'll probably be making greater use of specific apps, maps and restaurant booking sites. Maybe, if you're like me, you'll have brought a couple of your favourite travel guides with you, along with notes on individual places, cafes, walks, restaurants, neighbourhoods, museums, etc. they mention.
It's now that you benefit from all the hard work that has gone before. Now you're truly living in the moment. Travel is deeper, easier and your experiences richer and more rewarding - because you have a plan of travel.
I call this the 'memory creation' stage.
Want some more inspiration for things to do in Japan? Check out my Experiences Travel Hub.
RELATED: Top 10 Most Popular Activities In Japan
Stage 5: Reflecting
This is the stage most people never consider.
It's not the 'forgotten' stage, rather that people usually aren't even consciously aware that there is even a stage after Experiencing. But there is, and it's an important one. Here's why...
It starts with the journey back home. When the physical act of travelling itself can feel its most perfunctory and mundane. Most of us feel an emotional dip after such euphoric highs of the Experience stage. (Though it often feels good to be home, back in your own bed once more.)
However, no sooner are you home than the final phase of travel kicks in. Nostalgia, remembering and reminiscing.
This is also a time to share. Share your experiences and memories with friends and family.
Such discussions will spark questions from those you're sharing with and, you know what, you won't have answers to all of them. That's when you'll inherit some of their questions and make them the basis for future exploration and to seek answers.
You may create an online gallery of your favourite photos and video clips. You may even be inspired to start a blog to share your journeys with people all over the planet. People you've never met, but inspire to make their own plans to broaden their travel horizons. 😉
The Reflecting stage is where we show (and share) our gratitude for what we have been fortunate enough to have experienced.
It's for these reasons the Reflecting stage is all about gratitude.
Live, Learn, Apply, Repeat
Of course, like any other irrepressible traveller, once you've completed all 5 stages of travelling, you'll already be brimming with ideas of places to go and things to do next time.
You've lived through some incredible experiences and probably learned a few lessons along the way. Lessons that you can apply to further improve your future travel plans.
The seeds of that next trip are already taking root.
You (and I) know it won't be long before dreaming about that next journey into The Real Japan starts again.
I wish you well on your travels my friend!
Perhaps you have some trip planning hacks of your own that you've tried and tested? If so, please share them by leaving a comment below. I'm always looking for ways I can improve my travel planning.
About the Author
A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s 6,800 islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.
My List of Recommended Japan Travel Resources
My Travel Planning Services
The Real Japan Travel Planning Services
My Collection of Planning Guides And Resources
More Planning Resources
More Destination Ideas
More Experience Ideas
Suggested Further Reading
5 Essential Things You Need BEFORE You Come To Japan
38 Japan Travel Sites and Resources Every Traveller Should Know
How To Plan A Trip To Japan In Just 4 Steps
How And Why To Think Differently About Travel
Top 7 Etiquette Tips For Travel In Japan
The Real Japan Travel Store
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I have a blank 30 day calendar that I photo copy and cut to size to put in my Japan by Train Travel Guide I got a few years back with a JR Pass purchase. That book has maps of eight regions of Japan. Every time I see or read about a place I want to go I mark it on one of those maps. I think I add about one a week. I have well over a couple of hundred places highlighted or listed. Before I travel I pencil in on the calendar an itinerary of where I want to go and how long I expect to be in each place. When I go I often change areas because of weather or if I decide a shorter or longer stay in one place. With the JR pass it makes it easy to be flexible and with a glance at the Travel guide I can see several places I want to see in any given area. I hardly ever book a hotel more than a day in advance and often end up erasing or drawing arrows on my calendar. It would much easier to just use Rob and his knowledge.
That sounds like a great system Brek! Thanks for sharing it.
I do prefer to book most hotels in advance, but that’s largely driven by past experiences many years ago travelling in Europe when we came up short a couple of times – when we hadn’t booked ahead. I hated traipsing around in hot weather with suitcases. Of course, if we can, we go for those that allow late cancellation without fees to still give us the flexibility to change plans as you do.
But as you point out, my travel planning services are readily available to anyone who would like me to lend a hand!
You read my mind, Rob. Roughly 1 hour ago, I spotted a Japan image online and told my wife we will eventually visit when things open up for a bit. Good to have these steps in mind when we plan. She taught in Hiroshima for a year before we met; she loves the place. I have always been fascinated by Japanese culture. Good note on the remembering or reflecting stage; I’ve been doing this often with my SE Asia travels as Bali and Thailand are always in my heart, independent of what my body can not do, for now, at least.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ryan. And good to hear you too take time to appreciate what you have already experienced. I think there are many people who do not pause and reflect, which is a shame.